What most Americans didn't get to see on Veterans Day

Posted: Wednesday, November 12, 2003

The most famous American soldier of the Iraqi war is the one who says she didn't fire a shot - her gun jammed - and who feels, yeah, "used" as a symbol of military triumph when it's her comrades and rescuers who deserve the credit.

You could see Jessica Lynch on television Tuesday evening, as you have on many evenings since she returned home July 22 to a clamorous welcome and five miles of yellow ribbons fluttering along the roads of West Virginia.

What you will not be able to see on TV - Veterans Day or probably any other day - are some of the other soldiers who have also returned home from Iraq.

They have come back encased in aluminum and covered in the American flag - in coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Maryland, 393 of them since Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March.

The nation's scrapbooks have accustomed us to the pictures of TV-era presidents, heads bowed, at the coffins of the American dead of the Marine barracks in Beirut, of Lebanon and Panama, of Kosovo, of the Nairobi embassy, even of Afghanistan.

But not now. Now the dead of Iraq arrive unobserved by cameras or reporters, because in March, as the Iraq war was about to begin, a Pentagon order forbade news media from showing the nation images of coffins arriving or departing at any bases, in the United States or abroad.

The no-cameras rule at Dover came down in 1991, after groups including the American Civil Liberties Union lost a lawsuit against the Pentagon over access to Dover, which also serves as the nation's mortuary; the remains of the Challenger astronauts, among thousands more, were handled there.

What probably gave the Pentagon the idea in the first place was an incident in 1989 that broke down the White House image-making machinery.

The first President Bush was infuriated that split-screen TV images had showed him being loosey-goosey and affable at a press conference four days before Christmas in 1989, while the other side of the screen carried live pictures of the first flag-covered coffins from Panama being hefted off a military jet and onto the shoulders of pallbearers at Dover.

Still, ceremonials for bodies arriving from Kosovo and more recently from Afghanistan were photographed and broadcast. But now the lockdown - and the press lockout - is complete.

And what of those who come back on stretchers and in wheelchairs, to Andrews Air Force Base, not in aluminum cases, to Dover? "The wounded," Vermont's Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy told his Senate colleagues last month, "are brought back after midnight, making sure the press does not see the planes coming in with the wounded."

The blackout policy is supposed to keep from violating privacy. But what it's really about is a little thing called "the Dover test." John Glenn, the astronaut who became a senator, used it in 1994 to talk about the images of dead soldiers being flown back to Dover from combat in Haiti. The Dover test proposes that the more coffins arrive from overseas, the more Americans' appetite for war - any war - is dulled.

And the moral here would be ... don't go to war? No - just don't show the consequences of it. Control the image and you control the message. Iraq is about toppling Saddam Hussein statues, a president landing a jet on an aircraft carrier, a waifish soldier hustled to safety, illuminated by night-goggle-green light. It is not about armless or legless young men or women. It is not about coffins.

The invisible dead and the wounded are the nation's new MIAs - and so is the president who is nowhere to be seen, or photographed, among them.

Sometimes you wonder just who the enemy is, the way that veterans' policies have been going of late:

• The estate tax on millionaires is disappearing, but until Bush signs a bill Congress passed last week, the immediate military benefit to family of dead soldier is $6,000 - and it gets taxed.

• Soldiers returning home for R&R get a free flight from Baghdad to Baltimore - and then they've got to pay their own way home from there. Some airlines have stepped in to offer cut-rate fares.

• Until Congress voted to stop it, the Pentagon was recouping the subsistence allowance in military paychecks by charging hospitalized soldiers $8.10 a day for their three sort-of squares.

• In order to make those big tax cuts possible - a hundred bucks or so for most families, a high five figures for the millionaires - more than $15 billion in vets' benefits was on the block, again until Congress set up a howl.

• Congress defied Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had urged President Bush to veto any law that allowed for "concurrent receipt," letting certain disabled military retires collect both disability and retirement benefits.

• The nation's unemployment rate dropped to 6 percent - good news for returning soldiers, but how many of the new jobs are McJobs - a word Merriam-Webster has just included in its collegiate dictionary, for a "low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement"?

I started with Jessica Lynch and return to her now: The reason she joined the Army in the first place was to earn money for college, after she couldn't get hired part-time at the local Wal-Mart.

• Morrison is a Los Angeles Times columnist and frequent commentator on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition."

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